Jump Scares Do Not Undo a Good Horror Movie

If you ask any modern horror fan what their issue with the current state of the genre is, it’s almost a guarantee that the overuse of jump scares will form the core of their argument. Even more acclaimed mainstream horror films such as this year’s It will be the target of criticism from enthusiasts. The comparison is often drawn between jump scares and laugh tracks, whereby instead of laughter indicating to the audience when they should be laughing, a startling noise accompanied by a new figure suddenly filling the frame is there to remind them that they’re watching something scary. It’s an old trick that became much more commonplace during the slasher craze of the 1980s (although there are notable examples from the previous decade), that is met with disdain if one mentions the landscape of mainstream horror today.

It isn’t fair to form a direct correlation between poor quality and an established trope, though. The response to It is a key example of firmly establishing a tone that consumers can form a positive relationship with. The film does marry intense orchestral overtures with things that go bump in the night, but it wouldn’t be fair to break the film down purely to how it goes about creating fear. There is still well-written dialogue that connects and a sense of adventure to guide the viewer through the twisted world being presented to them. Dismissing everything a film gets right due to jump scares is unfairly ignoring the effort that has been made.

Get Out is the breakout horror film of the year and has garnered a myriad of positive responses from both critics and audiences. But it is arguably a thriller, with the most horror-themed scene of the film punctuated with multiple jump scares. Sharp violin strokes and sudden movement in the background serve to compose fear as protagonist Chris makes his way through an unknown house in the dead of night, and it’s unnervingly effective. Granted, the exploitation of such methods is sparsely implemented, but our recognition of them as qualifying the text overall as horror speaks volumes. The deeper down the rabbit hole alternative horror goes, the scarcity of jump scares increases. The Babadook and The Witch won’t throw them at you, but crediting the achievements of such to a lack of jump scares undercuts the high level of writing and production design that lends itself so well to the atmosphere.

A simple interpretation to ascertain would be that horror films are cheap to make and easy to market. Horror considered for mass consumption is typically geared towards a demographic that skews young; teenagers and twenty-somethings who are after some cheap, 90-minute thrills. It’s become more of a challenge to truly instil fear in an audience in this day and age, the real world is simply too horrifying for fiction to chill us. The classics played on the fears of the time. The Exorcist used single motherhood and the death of religion to evoke strong reactions from its victims, for example. In the subsequent decade, the rise of the slasher exploited teenage drug use and sex as a tool with which to extract our screams. What can studio horror provide now that can truly scare us? Television shows like Most Haunted are responded to as farcical by most, with the idea of the supernatural being a parody of its former self. The reason horror is subject to more praise on the independent side is because they’re exploring themes that resonate more, what worked for the studios 30 years ago has lost its lustre.

Ultimately, a wider cultural context must be examined before tarring poorly made horror films with the jump scare brush. The events that have formed the present day social conscience were once unknown to preceding generations, the people in charge of producing horror films don’t have the same societal inclinations as their target market. Jump scares are not an outdated element of the art, but when contextualised with a threat that we as a society can’t relate to, the intention of the work is lost amidst a sea of hard cynicism and desensitisation. There is little to be afraid of within fantasy when the reality is truly horrific.



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Why We Are Currently Living in a Golden Age of Horror Cinema

Of all the genres populating the cinematic realm, horror seems to be among the easiest to completely fumble. It’s an all too common occurrence for cheaply constructed piles of schlock comprised of jump scares and feeble acting to make bank at the box office these days. However, the vast majority of Internet boards behave as if that’s all we’ve been getting from horror these last few years, often trotting out that old chestnut of “X genre is dead because of stuff like this”. Such hyperbolic sentiment is par for the course in relation to popular culture right now, unless something is the next Citizen Kane of its ilk then it isn’t worth discussing. When a movie such as Get Out scores a 99% on RottenTomatoes (a score I feel it deserves, mind you), then many will wave their “overrated” banner because it didn’t blow them away to the point that they will go into shock if you shine a torch in their eyes.

The truth is that horror is at the strongest it’s been in years, and Get Out has kept that hot streak alive. For every Ouija, there’s a Don’t Breathe, for every Annabelle, there’s a Green Room. As far as I can tell, this spate of hugely entertaining American horror flicks started with You’re Next back in 2011. The fifth feature film from director Adam Wingard, You’re Next’s irreverent dark humour, over the top gore and familiar yet refreshing throwback approach endeared both critics and genre enthusiasts. It’s since gone on to obtain true cult status and has established Wingard as one to watch in the modern horror scene.

The stage was then set for a collection of maverick composers to release their unholy symphonies to the world, their orchestra a keen composition of violence, obscenity, wit and thought provoking parables. As consumers, we were treated to the gory workings of Fede Álvarez’s nightmarish Evil Dead re-imagining in 2013, a film nothing short of wonderful in its campy and absurd level of brutality. Looking across to Australia and we were blessed with Jennifer Kent’s wickedly tormented psychological drama, The Babadook, which would go on to become one of the most acclaimed films of 2014. Already, we have a healthy mix of old and new ideas being offered up to insatiable genre aficionados. A lust for extreme content was being filled but minus any kind of sacrifice of charm. How could horror possibly be weak with so much choice?

2015 sticks out as the most evident year of a golden age coming on thanks to the instant classic It Follows. A beguiling concoction of overly stylised visual spark and 80s motifs in terms of soundtrack and moral exploration of the dangers of unprotected casual sex, the film captured the hearts and minds of the horror community. Most of us are merely fans of the familiar, we’re easily drawn in by old school loveliness in the same vein as Carpenter or Craven. When such sentiment is thrown into a blender with all of the lovely technological innovations at the disposal of modern filmmakers, our love shall be practically offered up on a silver platter.

Are we being pandered to? Possibly. Are we getting awesome movies? Definitely. With 2016 being one of the single best years for horror films in history, and I seriously mean that. The Witch kicks everything off with a fearless display of pure atmosphere. A film crafted so that the harsh landscape is a character itself that merely houses the supernatural horrors that threaten the humble farming family that the narrative centres on. Constructed using appropriate language for the time and preferring to keep the scares to a minimum, this is a horror film for purists. One could argue that the film’s drawn out nature borders on pretentious, alienating those that wouldn’t consider themselves elitists. But the descent into hell for the characters tests the audience, creating its own mythology based on the folklore of old. To label it as a technical marvel would simply be understating its genius.

As we trek on through the year, our next stop is the straight up balls to the wall Green Room, a grimy, messy picture that is easy to fall in love with. Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to the similarly acclaimed Blue Ruin features a misfit group of punk rockers fighting for their lives against a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads, who are anchored by Patrick Stewart in an Oscar-worthy turn. What would sadly become Anton Yelchin’s final feature film to be released while he was still with us, the bizarre and uber violent trappings of Saulnier’s work feel like a lived in world. This is as close to an exploitation film as you’re likely to get in the latter half of this decade.

Fede Álvarez would then return to us, providing an utterly disgusting and depraved piece which I personally adore, Don’t Breathe. The concept is deceptively simple, kids try and rob a blind guy, blind guy is basically an evil Daredevil, fun ensues. Stephen Lang guides the passable young performers through the film with an acting showcase that is in equal parts sympathetic and downright despicable. It’s pretty difficult to discuss without spoiling, so all I’ll say is that you can expect slick cinematography and a lot of clear homages to the great Sam Raimi (which makes sense, given that he is essentially making movies through Álvarez vicariously at this point).

And now we’re deep into the drudges of 2017, with the celebrity back-patting contest that is the Oscars firmly behind us, everyone can look forward to another year of horror. Just when we thought we’d be let down, a casual masterwork comes from the mind of comedy giant Jordan Peele. I don’t feel Get Out needs any more praise than it already has at this point, it’s far too fresh in our minds to really say anything else. However, the deft combination of a frightening concept, on point comic relief, racial overtones and third act thrills makes for one satisfying meal.

I don’t know about you, but I believe horror is far from dead. If anything, it’s alive, kicking, and still holds the ability to scare the shit out of us.

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